Mark 7 and Washing Hands

For those of us who have come to the conclusion that GOD’S Torah has not been abolished explaining to our Christian brothers and sisters the joy of obedience can prove challenging however a worthwhile journey. Whenever I am approached regarding kashrut the challenger almost always comes armed with quotes from Mark 7.
In the case of Mark 7 Jesus is dealing with an open confrontation by a group of Pharisees and Scribes. They have accused the Disciples of Jesus of not following the traditions of the elders in regards to the Mikvah (washing) of the hands before they eat. But what was the purpose of the washing of the hands and why to the Pharisee’s deem it so important? In Leviticus 22 we find that Aaron and his sons are to eat of sacrificial foods only in a state of purity, “any descendant of Aaron with Tzara’at (skin affliction) or a discharge is not to eat the holy things until he is clean.” Our rabbinical sages have concluded from this passage that as a nation of priests we are to partake of our food in a state of purity just as the sons of Aaron, the sages concluded however that only a washing of the hands was sufficient for this task.
This tradition of the elders, according to the text, was in wide practice and it is important to note that nowhere does Jesus condemn this practice. But what he does do is point us to the important issue; impurity of the soul. The sin of the accusers was in rebuking others for not following the teachings of the elders while they themselves failed to keep the basic command of honoring your Father and Mother. So how is Mark 7 used by most Christians to teach that we have been released from the “burdens” of Leviticus 11? So far this has nothing to do with Jesus relaxing His own commands in Torah.
It seems at first the people didn’t understand what he was saying so Jesus gathers the crowd again to teach them and said “ there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” This passage will need some explanation because on the surface it seems to support the traditional Christian viewpoint. In the 1st Century B.C.E there was no reform Judaism therefore all Jews would have kept a minimum standard of kashrut, and as we read from the passage in Mark 7 the majority followed a very strict rabbinical standard, “for the Pharisee’s, and indeed all the Judeans, holding fast to the tradition of the Elders, do not eat unless they have given their hands a ceremonial washing.” When Jesus is speaking of food He is speaking in the context of Leviticus 11 and that which was given unto man to be considered food. There are no issues of Pork and Calamari here for it would have been totally foreign to the people. Again what Jesus is speaking of is purity of the soul.
So what did Jesus mean by “ there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man?” We know from the context of who He was speaking to that He was not referencing unclean foods making a person unclean but clean foods touched by common or unclean hands, that which has not been ritually washed. The closest translation of the ladder part of the text reads” because it does not go into the heart, but into the colon, and into the latrine, purging all foods.” Jesus here was obviously referencing human waste as to that which comes out of a person and makes him unclean. He was stating the obvious to make a spiritual connection with the people. It is not common hands touching clean foods that make the food unclean but the clean food after it has been digested and removed from the body only than does it become unclean.
I have often been asked “What is the difference between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law?” This is a question the sages have been asking for millennia. In “The Spirit of Jewish Law” George Horowitz speaks of the ever changing rabbinical association between the letter and the spirit (1-2). The spirit of the law was always considered paramount to the letter even to the point of the letter becoming obsolete in favor of a purely spiritual interpretation. My conclusion however is a bit different than Horowitz in that I see no need to place them in competition for they are two sides of the same coin. The spirit of the law is taken the letter and applying it to the heart. I believe this is what Yeshua is teaching us. The laws of ritual purity are given to remind us of spiritual purity. What good does it do to go to incredible lengths to keep ritually pure of body and ignore the defilement of the spirit?
At the end of Mark 7:19 most translations add the verse “therefore He declared all foods clean.” There are two points to make with this passage. The first is that the text “therefore He declared all foods clean” does not appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts. Some scholars believe it was added later in an attempt to clarify the meaning of Jesus’s teachings. The second point is that whether the text was in the original manuscripts or not is of no consequence because Jesus point is obvious. All foods that are eliminated from the body have the possibility of making someone unclean because of contact with human waste. Just as human waste that which renders the soul unclean also comes from within.


Reb Jimmy Rittenhouse

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